When the Soviet Union collapsed, it did not descend into chaos or have a long period where no one was in charge. It was a process that began with the power struggle between Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. This power struggle undermined the power of the party and eventually the government. Into the void flowed a new source of power and authority, the oligarchs. These were men with control of key assets who backed Yeltsin’s privatization plans for the economy.
Those oligarchs did not spring from nothing. Some were key party figures who had controlled aspects of the Soviet economy, but most were privateers who operated in the shadow economy of the Soviet system. They held posts in the Soviet system but had extensive contacts in the criminal underground. As the power of the state declined, the power of the underwound economy grew. When the system collapsed, they became the power centers providing control of the country.
This was not unique to the Soviet system. Whenever power begins to wane, alternative centers of power begin to flourish. There is a period in which the real power exists in these distributed power centers, but the façade of the old system remains. Collapse is merely the formal recognition of reality. Germany in the interwar years is another example of what happens when there is a power vacuum. The fascists did not spring from nothing. They had roots in German history and culture.
The Western Roman Empire is probably the best example of the process of collapse and what follows. For a long time, the empire was mostly a fiction. The daily life of the people was controlled by the local powers, the large landowners. These local authorities had power through ownership of land and authority through the administration of the law and regulation of local economics. They even supplied local security in addition to providing men to fight in the legions.
The latifundia was what we would think of today as a plantation. It was the closest thing to agribusiness in the ancient world. It was a large parcel of land worked by slaves for the purpose of export. By the late stages of the empire, these enterprises were common throughout the empire. After the empire, they became the basis of what we understand to be feudalism. The slaves became peasants, and the landowners became the feudal lords controlling the administration of Western Europe.
There was a lot more going on at the end of the Western Roman Empire, but a critical and necessary element was the rise of distributed power centers. Like the ethnic gangsters in the Soviet Union, these agricultural enterprises initially filled in the gaps of the system to keep it functioning. In time they began to rival the power of the empire and when the empire collapsed, they filled the void left behind. The resulting system was built around those local centers of power.
Just as there is a point at which a number of grains of sand becomes a pile of sand, there is a point where the decentralized power centers go from subservient to the central authority to rivaling the central authority. There is a paradox at work in that we can know this point exists but can never identify it with certainty. How many grains of sand constitutes a pile? At what point do people look first to the oligarch for leadership rather than the central authority?
It is a useful question to consider, because there was a point of no return in the Soviet Union just as there was in the Western Roman Empire. Many of those oligarchs in Russia were just the guys who noticed it first. Mikhail Fridman was active in the underground economy in the later years of the Soviet Union and quickly moved to the newly privatized economy as soon as it was possible. Like most of the oligarchs, he was an early adopter who saw the writing on the wall.
In other words, the men who would eventually become the oligarchs after the fall of communism were the first to see that the old system was doomed and something else was coming to replace it. They did not know or care what was coming. They just wanted to profit from the chaos. In fact, when the opportunity arose, they promoted the chaos, backing Yeltsin over Gorbachev because it was good for business. They profited from the collapse before anyone saw the collapse coming.
In current year America, this is relevant because it suggests that the American empire has been in collapse for a long time know. The rise of the financial oligarchs in the late-1980’s and 1990’s was one sign. The rise of Silicon Valley oligarchs as a rival power center to Washington is another. The assault on small business and the middle class by the combined power of the oligarchs and the political class is analogous to the late years of the Soviet system.
In other words, the American empire may already be in collapse. The geezers in Washington are allowed to pretend they are in charge as it benefits the oligarchs, but they have no real power. Legislation is written by the army of scribes known as lobbyists and think tanks, underwritten by the oligarchs. Elections are determined by the money and media supplied by those same oligarchs. The real power lies in boardrooms and villas, while the political system is just a show.
The Soviet and Roman examples suggest such arrangements never last as reality eventually forces its way to the front. In Russia, the oligarchs were brought to heel by the one universal source of power. Vladimir Putin, with the support of the intelligence community and the military was able to reassert civil control of Russia. The oligarchs still exist, but enough have been killed, exiled, or jailed to make sure the rest know who wields the real power in the country.
This is the other shoe to drop in the American empire. The intelligence services have real power, as we saw with the FBI efforts to overturn the 2016 election. The military has real power but lacks real leadership. Their willingness and ability to thwart Trump’s efforts to get out of Syria and Afghanistan should be of concern. Somewhere in the officer ranks there is a man with the skill and desire to change the relationship between the military and the decaying civil control.
Historical analogies are never perfect and are useful only in comparing the broad outlines of times and places. A smooth landing for the empire is not guaranteed any more than Caesarism is a certainty. The military could blunder the empire into a war it cannot win and destroy its credibility in the process. A financial collapse could lead to a popular revolt against the oligarchs. Of course, there is the looming demographic crisis that will bring unimaginable social upheaval.
Even so, what history is telling us is that the American empire is well past the point where reform is possible. It is past the point where the decaying system of imperial control can expect to outlive its current operators. The system is on life support and powerful interests are evolving in response to this reality. The collapse is now certain, but the timing is what is unknown. Another lesson of history here is that no one saw the Soviet collapse coming. The end is always a surprise.
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